Beware the Banjo
Wednesday is a big push, the longest drive of our trip. We’re making our way to Washington, the halfway point on our journey to New York. It’s a four and a half hour drive and with stops takes us about an hour longer. When we arrive in Washington we pass through some pretty poor neighbourhoods. As we make our way down Rhode Island Avenue towards the Downtown area the poverty evaporates to be replaced by the clean, white government buildings we all know so well from television. We’re staying in an old but central hotel called the District. I drop the girls off and head off in the car for the main reason for this pit-stop – to collect a banjo that has been made for me by Kevin Enoch, one of the best makers around. The drive to Kevin’s is another ten minutes outside of the town. His workshop is tucked up a pleasant drive beside a row of suburban houses in a pretty area just north of the city. It announces itself quietly with a small sign just behind the ground floor window of a small, wooden two-storey building. I meet the UPS guy on the way in, collect a package for Kevin and am met by him at the door. Kevin greets me warmly; we’ve been keeping up a correspondence for almost six months now and it’s good to finally meet him in person. We head up stairs into a room full of banjos in various states of assembly, old archtop guitars, lathes, drills, formers, antique banjo heads, drawings….
The banjo Kevin has made me is based on an old Dobson model from about the 1890s. It has a small drum, smaller than the more modern twelve-inch models favoured today, with a Dobson tone ring behind the skin. This was an innovation in its day, and is basically a spun metal hoop that the skin sits on that subtly changes the tone of the banjo, making it softer and more rounded. The drum is open-backed and covered in imitation calf-skin and the neck has a scooped out section towards the drum end. This facilitates the frailing style of playing favoured by the old-time musicians in the Appalachians, and by removing the upper frets in this way it is subtly rejecting the pyrotechnic fireworks of some of the more modern styles of playing around today. The neck itself is held firmly to the drum with a strong brace and has an internal graphite rod to keep it straight. It is topped in dark ebony with fret markers laid out as they would be on a guitar. The plain, slightly oblong headstock is engraved with a small, five-pointed star. Within this star sits another, smaller star. It’s a beautiful reminder of the iconography we came across in our travels through the mountains. When I strum the banjo it positively chimes, filling the wooden room with a bell-like ringing. We put a small piece of sheep skin just behind the head and this dampens many of the clashing overtones, making the sound softer and more musical. Kevin and I chat, play, chat and play. An hour and a half later I have to run to meet Catherine and Mary and I say my goodbyes. It feels great to have met the person who makes you an instrument. I hope this instrument has a long healthy life and that someday I can pass it on to someone else with the story of how I travelled to America to collect it from the maker. Do please check out Kevin’s beautiful work at www.enochbanjos.com
That night we call into The Dubliner, Washington’s best know Irish bar. We meet Brian Gaffney, or ‘The Gaff’, who is playing a live set on stage. We get to chatting and as quick as a flash he’s down with us at the bar and singing away with the girls. He’s a great character and has been on the scene in America for many years. It seems he knows everyone. It’s a great end to a long tiring day. Tomorrow it’s New York and believe me, we’re ready to take a bite out of that Big Apple!